NASA's Curiosity rover eyes Mars' active dunes

No active dunes have been visited anywhere in the solar system besides Earth.  

Last Updated: Nov 17, 2015, 12:30 PM IST
NASA's Curiosity rover eyes Mars' active dunes
Image courtesy: NASA

Zee Media Bureau

New Delhi: Launched in August 2012 on Mars, where it is investigating how the Red Planet's environment changed billions of years ago, NASA's Curiosity Mars rover will take advantage of a chance to study some modern Martian activity at mobile sand dunes.

(The dark band in the lower portion of this Martian scene is part of the "Bagnold Dunes" dune field lining the northwestern edge of Mount Sharp. Image courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

The "Bagnold Dunes," which skirt the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp on Mars, will be Curiosity's next target of sharp vigilance during the next few days.

No Mars rover has previously visited a sand dune, as opposed to smaller sand ripples or drifts. One dune Curiosity will investigate is as tall as a two-story building and as broad as a football field. The Bagnold Dunes are active: Images from orbit indicate some of them are migrating as much as about 3 feet (1 meter) per Earth year. No active dunes have been visited anywhere in the solar system besides Earth.

(This view taken from orbit around Mars shows the sand dune that will be the first to be visited by NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover along its route to higher layers of Mount Sharp.
Image courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

NASA reported Bethany Ehlmann of the California Institute of Technology and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, both in Pasadena, California, saying, "We've planned investigations that will not only tell us about modern dune activity on Mars but will also help us interpret the composition of sandstone layers made from dunes that turned into rock long ago”.

(This view was taken in 2014 of a Martian sand dune at the edge of Mount Sharp, documenting dune activity. Image courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

According to NASA, as of Monday, Nov. 16, Curiosity has about 200 yards or meters remaining to drive before reaching "Dune 1." The rover is already monitoring the area's wind direction and speed each day and taking progressively closer images, as part of the dune research campaign. At the dune, it will use its scoop to collect samples for the rover's internal laboratory instruments, and it will use a wheel to scuff into the dune for comparison of the surface to the interior.

(This map shows the route driven by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover from the location where it landed in August 2012 to its location in mid-November 2015, approaching examples of dunes in the "Bagnold Dunes" dune field. Image courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

Curiosity has driven about 1,033 feet (315 meters) in the past three weeks, since departing an area where its drill sampled two rock targets just 18 days apart. The latest drilled sample, "Greenhorn," is the ninth since Curiosity landed in 2012 and sixth since reaching Mount Sharp last year. The mission is studying how Mars' ancient environment changed from wet conditions favorable for microbial life to harsher, drier conditions.